Q+A> Michael Graves On His J.C. Penney Collection

National, Newsletter, Product
Monday, June 10, 2013
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Michael Graves (left) and the toaster he designed for J.C. Penney (right).

Michael Graves (left) and the toaster he designed for J.C. Penney (right).

At J.C. Penney’s recent rebranding launch party, AN spoke with architect and product designer Michael Graves about his new collection for the company and some career highlights. He even offers advice for aspiring architects and designers and talks about some current design work.

How did designing a collection for JCPenney come about?

I’ve known some of the people at Penney’s since my Target days, so when this opportunity came around we were looking for a way to slow down our commitment to Target at that time. When Penney’s offered what they did to us, we grabbed it in a second. It was such a good deal in terms of having a shop within a store.

For me, that’s the game changer. If we were close friends and you told me you had to do some shopping for a relative or something like that, I’d tell you to go to our shop in Penney’s. It’s all there and that’s what excites me.

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What was your favorite part about designing the collection?

Designing the collection.

Any challenges you faced with it?

Every day you face a challenge; with the materials you’re using, price point, function, appearance. All of that comes together in the quest for good design. But it was wonderful to get to do it and so much fun. People think it’s a struggle and hard work and all of that—and it is—but that’s what’s so gratifying about it is to get to do those things and to make “stuff.”

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If you had to name a single success of your career thus far, what would it be?

That’s a very difficult thing [to answer] because there’s the practice of architecture, there’s the practice and business of product design, there’s health design—which is something we’re engaged in now—there was teaching. But Paul Goldberger or somebody said, “Michael would ultimately be known for the office he made, the people that he produced, the people that came to work at the office then go run a school of architecture somewhere, or when he was teaching how he taught them.”

But it’s so hard to say one [element] is worth more than the other because I’ve never thought that way of “what’s the best thing I did,” or “who is my favorite child.” I have a favorite child on given days but designing this [collection] is right up there with everything. To get to open these shops all across the country now and to see what you all say about it will be interesting, as well, because that will really tell us how it’s doing. We will live and die, to some extent, by the consumer’s reaction [to our products]. Penney’s won’t keep it if it doesn’t sell but I think it will do well.

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Do you have any advice to offer aspiring architects or designers?

Yes, two things: read, read, read, and draw, draw, draw. You can’t draw enough. While talking to the new dean of the school of architecture at Princeton, I told him, “I have to draw everyday just like a pianist would have practice the piano everyday.” You have to draw everyday: Once you know how, you can’t suddenly give it up.

It’s the same thing with designing. I hate days that I don’t get to work on a building. I go home and I’m in a little bit of a funk because I didn’t get to do my craft that day. I had to give an interview, or talk to students, or talk to a client—all of it interesting. But the thing about my life is that I wouldn’t change it for anything.

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What excites you about the future of design?

What we’re involved in is very exciting and now, especially with healthcare design, we’re really pleased with what’s going on. We’re doing a new hospital in Omaha, Nebraska and I’m so pleased with it. It’s a rehab center and it caters to the whole family, but there are a lot of kids there and kids need their parents. So, when young patients are in the hospital for weeks, at least, we have a place for one or the other of their parents to stay there as well. It’s not just a chair that turns into a bed but a real, little cubbyhole of a room. It’s the first time in hospital design that’s been done. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s going to be a game changer.

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